Vanity Fair’s piece on the fall of NBC News over the last 4 years is a pretty good read, and at least finds some people willing to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of The Worst Company In America, which bought NBC/Universal despite serious concerns raised by, I dunno, everyone?
Since Comcast took control of NBC, the network’s news division—famously termed Comcast’s “crown jewel” by C.E.O. Brian Roberts—has endured one debacle after another. “When Comcast took over, they had the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 Sunday show, and the No. 1 evening broadcast,” says a former top NBC executive. “That’s all completely fallen apart. I don’t know how you blame anyone but Comcast and the people it brought in. It’s been a nightmare.”
Behind the scenes much of the blame has been laid at the feet of three executives: [NBC News chief Deborah] Turness, a British-trained newcomer to U.S. television; [former network head Patricia] Fili, who had virtually no experience in journalism; and Fili’s boss, the steely, driven C.E.O. Comcast installed to run NBCUniversal, Steve Burke. Under Burke the network has done well overall—its ratings have rebounded from last to first in the coveted 18–49 demographic, and NBCUniversal’s profits were up 18 percent last year—but he and his deputies, their critics charge, time and again proved unable to rein in the news division’s high-priced talent. “News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn’t have a fucking clue,” says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. “She’s letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.”
“Look. Deborah Turness: I have seen no evidence she knows what she’s doing, but in fairness, she walked into a complete shitstorm there,” says a former top NBC executive. “Today is a horror show. Brian Williams? He didn’t give a rat’s ass what Deborah Turness says. But this is fundamentally not a Deborah Turness problem. She’s just a symptom of the problem…. This is a Comcast problem.”
Even some of Burke’s defenders admit he has only himself to blame for the decline of NBC News. “Steve has a great track record, and phenomenal DNA, but nobody bats a thousand,” insists one Burke fan. “He’s done a phenomenal job in so many areas. What he did easing out Leno? Unbelievable. But what you’re looking at here is his mistake. Just a huge mistake. I mean, bringing in Pat? Then Deborah? That’s like bad food and small portions.”
Officially, in a damage-control mode where almost no one will be interviewed freely and on the record, NBC News declined comment for this article. Unofficially, its loyalists cooperated extensively. While admitting the occasional misstep, they reject the harsh critiques that have trailed in the wake of the Williams scandal, blaming them on a coterie of departed executives, including former NBCUniversal C.E.O. Jeff Zucker and former NBC News chief Steve Capus, who resigned under pressure in 2013. “We know the people saying these things about us, and we know why,” one NBC partisan told me. “Because five years later we are still cleaning up the mess they left behind.”
I’m sure a similar piece will be written about MSNBC head Phil Griffin about that network’s rapid disintegration in the coming months, but I’m fairly sure the cause of both of these issues remains “having the largest cable company in the country buying a major broadcast network”.